03/22/2012 11:43 am ET Updated May 22, 2012

Raven's Intelligent Design

Storytelling is an ancient human art too often portrayed in modern society as best suited to the entertainment of children, and perhaps even perceived as a bit quaint. In our printed and digital age, it's easy to forget that the overwhelming portion of human knowledge and history has been nurtured and preserved by the sophisticated human practice of telling story. The present method of pursuing institutional degrees encourages scholars to gather stories, students to research them, doctoral candidates to study them and craft insightful theses based on imposed literary taxonomy. In the undertaking of these valid pursuits, however, it's crucial to remember that the most worthwhile consequence of storytelling and story listening is the development of our insight into essential human concerns.

It's commonly acknowledged that the art of people indigenous to what is now Southeast Alaska -- people commonly identified as the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpshian nations -- is sophisticated and highly developed. Many people are aware that the matrilineal kinship system of these cultures is quite complex. A few others know that Northwest Coast indigenous languages are extremely complex, employing complicated rules of grammar and syntax, and manifesting phonemes not found in most other languages. Some students are aware of the long-established legal systems of Northwest Coast cultures. A few scholars know that by the time of colonial contact, traditional educational systems had been in place and effective for centuries. After hundreds of generations, when the measure of time finally changed from the movements of glaciers to the hands of a clock, every system needed for a culture to survive and thrive had already been developed, refined, and placed into the hands of the next generations by telling this brilliant history and listening to these bright truths.

In the complex Tlingit legal system, stories and songs are intellectual property owned by a clan. Their retelling and performance can only be done with permission and with careful attention to specific attribution. Some stories, though, are so fundamental that they have become part of traditional worldview. Stories of Raven's endeavors are examples; most are part of the Raven cycle, and many of these stories are well known and often told. Among the many stories told about the land that became known as Southeast Alaska and the beings that live upon that place is a story of Raven's intelligent design.

There was a time when darkness was upon the world, and no light shone on Lingit Aani. Raven, ever curious, ever industrious, decided he would do something about the darkness, and through investigation and study, with scheming and plotting, employing improvisation and vision, he accomplished his purpose, and light came upon the world.

We can recall events in 2010, when thirty-three miners were trapped for more than two months in a Chilean gold and copper mine. The world monitored rescue efforts, and one update noted that the miners would need eyewear to protect them against the "unfamiliar sunlight." To experience sunlight after two months must indeed have been astounding. How much more so for people of Raven's time to experience light from the moon, from the stars, and from the sun after their lifetimes of darkness. When Raven caused light to flood the world, all the people must have been deeply alarmed. Even the mountains must have trembled.

Not long ago, all the people on earth lived by the phases of the moon. Nowadays we no longer do that. We don't really live by our environment any more, until a disaster strikes or an unfamiliar natural anomaly occurs. Rather than living by the light and by the seasons, we are guided by printed calendars and scheduled meals. It's sometimes difficult in an artificial world to recognize the natural purpose of our principal storyteller: the land itself.

We can always listen to the land, whether it's because we are among the fortunate who return to a place summer after summer, perhaps to fish, perhaps to pick berries, perhaps to laugh and become part of the land again, or whether it's because we perform our hunting and berry-picking in the manners of the twenty-first century and visit those places in our dreams. The land is telling stories. In the ancient way of understanding -- the human way, as it were -- listening to the land is an essential element of Raven's intelligent design.